Beautiful Complications and other stories

Sometimes, in between trying to decide which class to prioritize on any given day and pestering grad student teaching assistants for assignment details, I really miss blogging.

You may have missed the cat pictures.
Maia hasn't changed much.
There's more going on in my head and heart and life at any given moment these days than I can possibly settle into neat blog posts. It's good, stressful, beautiful, exhausting, painful, necessary, and it sometimes results—when I do manage to post—in dreadful vaguebooking. Sorry about that. Some of it is that all too often when I feel like I have things to say now, I can't scrape together the right words, and it isn't my voice that needs to be heard.

I do have to say, though, I love school. Going by distance is hard. Going while working is hard. Going with a largely uniform student body, so that it's often me and perhaps one other person in the class who are different, is hard. But my professors are fantastic. The teachers and advisers and administration are accessible and helpful. As for the classes, so far they always teach me something that helps bring light and warmth into the great aching vacuum in my chest that's trying to fill itself with understanding.

I went on a road trip this spring and got this close to campus.
This is just outside of Ogden; USU is in Logan.
Someday I'll make it all the way there; I hear their ice cream's great.
In the meantime, I'm rocking an Aggie sweatshirt.

* * *

My friend Bekah gave me the gift of a meet-and-greet with Pentatonix this summer in Seattle:

In case you can't tell from the smiles, I was excited,
and they rock.
The concert was pretty incredible. I yelled and cheered like a twelve-year-old. Also, like a thirty-seven-year-old: they were touring with Kelly Clarkson, and I knew all her early music and none of the new stuff. As it turns out, age has not made me too dignified to stand up and dance and sing along.

* * *

You guys. I got to MEET them.

Also, they're pretty incredible. Even filmed amid screaming fans on somebody's iPhone. I'd just give you their official "Aha!" video, which is awesome if you can handle a little zombie, but I really love the Renaissance bit they do at the front when they sing it live.

* * *

As mentioned, every class has taught me something I've needed to know. Highlights follow.

English 2010: Rogerian argument. It doesn't guarantee success, but at least it makes you feel like you're trying.

Horticulture 1800: How to prune different kinds of bushes and trees, and that my houseplants don't get nearly enough light. Now I just need to figure out how to fix that. They also get way too much cat, but cats unfortunately weren't covered in the module on horticultural pests.

American Institutions 1300: I learned so much from this class' lectures, readings, and discussions on wars, manifest destiny and imperialism, and the history and effectiveness of protests. Also, the professor told me I "need to go on to grad school for sure." I confess I glowed.

Statistics 1040: Considering that statistics can be manipulated to say almost anything, it meant a lot to learn the basics of how to read a study to see whether the claims being made off it are solid or suspicious. This was—rather unexpectedly—my favorite class so far.

Science and Society 1360*: What pseudoscience is, and the warning signs thereof; also, the natural limits of science and religion in relation to each other. Some of that I'd never heard before (well, I'd heard all the pseudoscience ... I do have Facebook. :P)

When I took swiftwater rescue some years back, my teacher said, "We're trying to drownproof you." Statistics and science together felt like being given the skills to help proof myself against drowning in misinformation.

Spanish 101: It's teaching me Spanish, which is awesome. It'd be cool to master vesre, but I'm still concentrating on memorizing the words with the syllables in the right order for now.

* * *

Bekah and I chalked our hair for the Pentatonix concert; she knew I'd been eyeing all the pretty colors everybody's dyeing their hair nowadays. Chalk washes out, so it was just one day of purple, but it was fun to go happy-go-lucky colorful for a day.

Kind of my favorite hair day EVER.
I also happen to have leftover chalk, so it may come back at some point. There's always Halloween. :D

* * *

I chose cultural anthropology for one of my fall classes, and it may be the wild card that surpasses Statistics for favorite class. After all, writers are anthropologists after a fashion—studying ourselves from a scientific distance, studying humanity intimately and up close, always questing for a better understanding of what it means to be human.
The anthropological perspective on the human condition is not easy to maintain. It forces us to question the commonsense assumptions with which we are most comfortable. It only increases the difficulty we encounter when faced with moral and political decisions. It does not allow us an easy retreat, for once we are exposed to the kinds of experience that the anthropological undertaking makes possible, we are changed. We cannot easily pretend that these new experiences never happened to us. There is no going back to ethnocentrism when the going gets rough, except in bad faith. So anthropology is guaranteed to complicate your life. Nevertheless, the anthropological perspective can give you a broader understanding of human nature and the wider world, of society, culture, and history, and thus help you construct more realistic and authentic ways of coping with those complications.**
Of course, the scientific context is not required to have those kinds of experiences. learn that world-opening perspective, and undergo that change. Neither is writing. Sometimes it just happens because you're human and surrounded by humans. I am still full of wonder that it has happened to me. It's a beautiful complication; I wouldn't trade it for anything the world could give me.

Happy fall!

* In other science class news, I got way too much joke mileage out of two weeks of researching and writing about hydraulic fracturing—as in, "I have to do my fracking homework." Blame that on all the sci-fi and fantasy swear-word substitutes that I've heard. Besides, burn me, but there was just so MUCH bloody gorram fracking homework. Merlin's pants! and mother's milk in a cup! I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle ... okay, I'll stop. :P

** Schultz, Emily A. and Robert H. Lavenda, Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition, Ninth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 37


The Harry Potter Book Club: Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapters 16-17

Before proceeding with discussion, I have two items that must be mentioned.

First, the bad news: Christie has had to withdraw from posting, owing to other life commitments needing priority—things like working and having two children. She hopes to still read along, and maybe we’ll even get her to comment from time to time. :)

Second: I would be failing in my duties as your resident Potterhead if I did not embed the following video.

At your service.

Masha responded to the last chapter with some insightful comments on Trelawney and the subject of Divination. She’s right that Trelawney is “a delightful fraud”; my favorite comment, however, was
Maybe Trelawney's merely a reminder that attempting to make a formula from a mystery is impossible and makes those that attempt it look ridiculous.
I’m delighting in academics and am lately feeling crazy fond of knowledge, the scientific method, theorizing, philosophizing, and all that—but Masha’s point introduces a nice little check into the West’s zeal in both the scientific and religious arenas. Not a halt, just a check—a warning not to dash off the edges of the earth in pursuit of the one explanation that solves everything.

On to the next chapters!

This Week in Reading Harry

Read: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, chapters 16 and 17

Art by afo2006

Potential discussion points:

1. Hermione irritates her classmates by fussing about how her Transfigured teapot looked more like a turtle than a tortoise, while everyone else is saying things like “Were the tortoises supposed to breathe steam?”

As someone who this week got a patient "I know you attempt to get 100% on your exams" email from a Spanish professor who knew I'd be upset with a 95%, I ... think it's a good thing I'm not on campus to irritate classmates who have healthier priorities. We annoying worrywarts are typically more invested than we need to be in the given moment, and we tend not to know how to stop that.
Art by Norma Peters.

2. Professor Lupin’s final exam. I absolutely love this. Around the time I went up against my Statistics final, I think I would have battled the exact same boggart as Hermione—substituting professors, of course.

3. The Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures makes its decision before finally weighing the evidence. “Justice”—to borrow Thomas Hardy’s scare quotes from the end of Tess of the D’Urbervilles—has all too often done the same.

4. I’d like to say that Harry’s fabricated crystal-ball viewing, in his Divination final, is testimony to Rowling’s confidence in the act of choosing—but that would involve SPOILERS.

5. Regarding humans' astounding capability for self-deception, I have to wonder how much of the students’ crystal-ball reporting Professor Trelawney actually believes. “A little disappointing,” she says, “but I’m sure you did your best.” Her disappointment appears to center in Harry’s failure to see death in the ball. I find this a mystery indeed.

Art by Ederoi
6. The real prediction, which—again, self-deception—Trelawney refused to believe that she actually made.

7. Ron demonstrates his bravery. I love that it’s Ron, wobbling on a broken leg, who says, “If you want to kill Harry, you’ll have to kill us too!”

8. Crookshanks demonstrates his humanity. I like a cat with a feel for justice. (It's outside the norm. The Oatmeal: "Dogs are a man's best friend. Cats are man's adorable little serial killers.")

Art by cartoonsilverfox
9. Hermione gets two out of three questions wrong. It happens to the best of us; it’s shockingly hard to get all the evidence regarding any tolerably important matter in this life.

10. “I’m Moony”—a werewolf. Here's Moony's backstory, drawn from Pottermore, for your reading pleasure. SPOILERS for latter books abound.

* * *

More Moony and the introduction of Peter Pettigrew, next post. For now, to tide you over until that day, here are some links to give you the warm fuzzies: first, Kelly Orazi's beautiful MuggleNet piece on J.K. Rowling's recent Twitter statement that "You got the letter. You went to Hogwarts. We were all there together." (If that doesn't make your week, I'm not sure how to help you.)

Second, BookRiot gives us the option of “Imagining a Fandom Edition of an Annotated Harry Potter.” I am so down with that.

Happy reading!


Harry Potter Book Club: Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapter 15

It's been almost exactly a year since the last Harry Potter Book Club post went up on my blog. I, for one, have missed our conversations. People have gone on talking about books and stuff, but it really just hasn't been the same.

Fifty shades of gray, listed by hexadecimal value.
I have such a weakness for puns.
Not having read that book, I have nothing else of interest
to say about it.
It's asking a great deal, I know, but perhaps you all might forgive the H.P.B.C. for having taken the year off. Masha had a baby. Christie traveled to Wales and back again, and had a baby. I took a job, entered college, and underwent metamorphosis.

But I'm still twelve years old at heart.
Some things never change.
I'll let Masha and Christie discuss their lives or not, as they choose. For now, I'll limit myself in this post to the subject at hand, which is Harry Potter—but I've seriously been through enough Transfiguration this year to find it worth noting that going forward with Harry Potter, picking up right where we left off in the middle of book three, I'm reading with new eyes. New eyes, and a few more unicorn hairs.

:: Conversation with my friend Bekah ::
Me: I found more gray hairs.
Bekah: Not gray. They are silver in a magical way, like unicorns.
Me: THAT. Yes.

Never fear: if you're curious, the general thoughts and feels will come up. Harry has experiences that can be made relevant to nearly everything important, and I'm well practiced at making mental leaps. Till Rowling brings it up, then.

Flippantly minor newsworthy item: I got a smartphone this year. I love it almost as much as Mr. Weasley might.

My favorite tech junkie.
So, right—Harry Potter. Remember, anybody can post to the book club on their own blog! That said, for the sake of one priceless commodity—time—I'm dropping the little-used link carousel. If you're not Masha or Christie and you post to the book club, leave me a comment with a link to your post, and I'll link back to you in my next post. M and C, I can of course find your posts without the aid of magic. :)

Also, with an unpredictable schedule and practically no time for reading, I can't promise to post regularly. I can, however, promise to give it the old college try! I'm in college. I'm doing stuff like that.

(NB: College is way better than middle and high school. J. K. Rowling should really write a book about wizard university, because MERLIN'S PANTS IT WOULD BE WONDERFUL. LIKE BABY UNICORNS.)

We left off with chapters 13 and 14. Recap:
  • Sirius Black broke into Gryffindor Tower
  • Lupin and Snape confronted the Marauder's Map
  • Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle got punished by McGonagall for dressing up as dementors and sabotaging the Quidditch game
  • Hermione got herself in over her head.
I must say, the number of times I've thought of Hermione's near-hysterical "I can't, Harry, I've still got four hundred and twenty-two pages to read!" these last months has not been insignificant.

Now, on to chapter 15! It's theoretically an easy one, as we're talking Quidditch.

* * *

This Week in Reading Harry

Read: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, chapter 15

Potential discussion points:

1. Injustice in the Wizarding world. Hagrid has lost his case for Buckbeak against the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures—which is a remarkably chilling name. Disposal?

The loss of the case is too easily written off by Ron—and therefore Harry and the reader—as a result of Lucius Malfoy's throwing the weight of his wealth and power around. What has to be remembered is that Buckbeak did actually savage Malfoy, albeit under direct provocation, and therefore a handful of people who weren't present at the savaging chose to defend the child over the animal. It happened to be the wrong choice.

Wizards and witches, Rowling reminds us again and again, are human. Humans universally make choices based on the information at hand, fed through layers of conscious knowledge and unconscious presupposition, obvious passions and muddled emotion. Injustice can result at any point: misinformation, misunderstanding, wrong presuppositions, conflicting emotions and loyalties.

What's shocking to me is how easy it is, especially when you're removed from a situation, to be part of injustice. It's awful when you realize you have been.

Hermione delivering justice.
Art by periwinkle-blue.
2. Hermione slaps Malfoy in the face.

I'm not a huge fan of corporal punishment, but occasionally it seems to be the only way to settle an attitude—noting, of course, that this was a very small and not ultimately damaging strike given in response to an attitude the size of Grawp.

3. Cheering Charms. They sound addictive. You know how when you have chronic pain, you don't realize just how much pain it is till the right medication takes it away suddenly? I was lucky enough to experience eight hours this year with my usual anxiety completely sedated, and ... oh gosh. No amount of chocolate or alcohol has ever provided the same sense of relief and contentment as having anxiety just magically gone for a little while.

4. The crystal-gazing scene. This is possibly one of the funniest scenes in the series.
Harry, at least, felt extremely foolish, staring blankly at the crystal ball, trying to keep his mind empty when thoughts such as "this is stupid" kept drifting across it.
I haven't pulled anything more profound out of it, however; not until the part where:

"There's going to be loads of fog tonight."
Art by Marigolade-69.
5. Intellectualism finally gets fed up with Divination and storms out of the room. I'll let Masha take the lead on this subject, but here are some foggy preliminary thoughts:

I have vivid, detailed, emotive dreams that do sometimes seem to connect organically to waking experience, though I see them not as predictive but as curiosities that can occasionally be helpful in clarifying thought processes.

Also, single crows make me nervous. On the whole, however, I take firm refuge in science—which, when it's done properly, at least is supposed to acknowledge what it does not know. What I appreciate about Masha's approach to superstition, however, is that she makes the same concession. If more of us made that concession, the world truly might be a better place.

6. The Quidditch final, House rivalry, and competitive sports. I played volleyball in high school (not that I was good at it; I was just tall); I haven't got a problem with a little team spirit and competitiveness. Learning to lose and win graciously are good life skills. Sports are more fun than running on treadmills, and I can definitely yell and cheer at a Superbowl party when the Seahawks are playing. All admitted!

But team spirit is both charm and curse. Humanity admittedly might never get anything significant done without it, but when it's directed against other people, it bleeds the human soul of empathy. Fiercely loyal partisanship in politics blinds people to the truth underlying opposing positions. In religion (or the rejection thereof), the team mentality is death to caritas; speaking as a Christian—and as one who looks like an insider while sometimes having outsider feelings—I get frustrated with communal habits of dismissiveness toward, and unwillingness to work with, people who live outside the inner sanctum.

Most of all, though, I worry about team spirit when it leads otherwise sincere people to fight dirty. (Fred and George, you know I love you like crazy, but ...) I worry about a sports team when it starts regularly fouling its rivals in a game, and that concern gets profoundly personal when dirty fighting makes its way into things like politics and religion, which affect real humans' lives. My own record is hardly perfect here—I am absolutely as human as the next girl who hates losing—but part of growing is learning to play fairer, so there's always hope.

And there's your Hufflepuff optimist talking. :)

That ought to be enough to be going on with for this week. Happy Potter talk!

^^ The above setup terrified me so much that I had a hard time answering the questions myself. I never would have gotten Ginny's Patronus, either. I can rock trivia if it's book-based, but IMO, stuff that's only on Pottermore is not fair game.